Roundup: Melting Glaciers Move Borders, Peruvian Study Opens Door for Glacial Research, and Glacier Meltwater Acoustics

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research

A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.

Read the story by Zoë Klobus on GlacierHub here.

Dissolved pyrite causes red deposit on rocks along a river in the Rio Santa watershed (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier. 

“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”

Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy daily work at the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a small mountain restaurant, opened in 1984 at a location high in the Italian Alps—now it might be in Switzerland. The restaurant has become the subject of a dispute between the two states due to a legal agreement which allows Italy’s northern border to move with the natural, morphological boundaries of glaciers’ frontiers, which largely follow the watersheds on either side of the ridges. The moving border has shifted over the last fifteen years since its creation as glaciers retreat and the restaurant may now be in Swiss territory. If decided to be in Switzerland, the restaurant would be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and potentially even customs; Swiss inspectors would need to approve every box of pasta and package of coffee brought up to the restaurant by cable car from Italy.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. 
Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Borders can follow artificial paths, like those on maps forming perfectly straight lines, independent of the physical and cultural landscapes they may be mincing. Others are fixed by natural boundaries like the Niagara River separating the US and Canada. 

However, not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers. 

Mount Similaun glacier, where the border between Italy and Austria drifts with the ice. 
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The moving border is an unprecedented legal concept. It was established through an agreement between Italy and Austria in 2006 and another between Italy and Switzerland in 2009. France did not sign such an agreement because of post World War II territorial gains on the Italian side of the watershed it did not want to risk losing.

The moving border’s flexibility is a highly unusual case in a world where many borders serve to mark defined lines of inclusion and exclusion. “Borders today move following the policies of exclusion from/inclusion in pursued by States. For instance, when it comes to migration, EU South external borders happen to be already in Africa, where migrants are prevented from embarking towards Europe,” international lawyer and Roma Tre University human rights professor Alice Riccardi told GlacierHub.

Since 2008, the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM), which has defined and maintained Italy’s state borders since 1865, has conducted high-altitude survey expeditions every two years to search for shifts in the border and subsequently to update official maps. The collaborative team that conducts the survey is composed of an equal number of experts from IGM and representatives from cartographic institutes of neighboring states.

The concept of the moving border captured the attention of Marco Ferrari, an architect, and Dr. Elisa Pasqual, a visual designer. In 2014, they launched a research project and interactive installation called Italian Limes focused on the moving border. The word limes comes from Latin and was used by the Romans to describe a nebulous, unfixed fringe zone on the edge of their territorial control. The Romans viewed limes as ebbing and flowing as the Roman army advanced and retreated similar to how today the border moves as the ice drifts. 

The project, featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale, explores the limits of natural borders when they are tested by long-term ecological processes and reveals how climate change has begun to wear on Western ideas of territory and borders. 

“The project makes the speed of climate change visible because we are used to thinking of borders, glaciers, and mountains as things that stay fixed,” Ferrari told GlacierHub. “Climate change changes our conception of territory in a way that is not just material, it’s not just a disruption of infrastructure, but also of the geographical imagery of the planet itself. So the very idea of the border is put into crisis by climate change in this sense, it almost contradicts the possibility of being able to trace a border.”

One of the high-precision GPS measurement tools used by the project at Grafferner Glacier. 
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The Italian Limes project takes measurements at the 1.5-kilometer long Grafferner Glacier near Mount Similaun in the Ötztal Alps at the border of Italy and Austria. GPS measurement units were installed at the site to track changes to the glacier and watershed which broadcast their data to a machine, which prints a real-time representation of the moving border.

“By looking at the history of the border we came across this specific moment in time of the mobile border that was initially presented to us as an anecdote, as a funny curiosity, a weird glitch in the normal diplomatic management of the relationship between countries. Because of how it was presented to us, we almost didn’t focus on it, but on second thought we saw that this was the nexus that could allow us to talk about all the things we wanted to talk about; it could allow us to reveal the contradiction in this idea of a natural border–how even the mountains, even the watershed, even glaciers aren’t something that is forever, the fact that they are chosen to be borders is a clear political act and when these things move the contradiction gets exposed,” Ferrari explained to GlacierHub.   

The installation showing a live representation of the border at ZKM, Karlsruhe.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The project grew to the point that Ferrari and Pasqual teamed up with architect and editor Andrea Bagnato to create A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a 2019 book which builds on Italian Limes to map out the effects of climate change on geopolitical understandings of the border. 

“I saw the project at the Venice Biennale 2014, it was a fantastic installation, and that’s when I proposed to Marco and Elisa to turn it into a book because I thought that after the work they had done physically going up on the glacier and producing these devices to visualize the movements of the glacier, there were a lot of issues to explore in more detail, historical and political issues. The book was a way to do that,” Bagnato told GlacierHub. 

“The book provides a kind of historical perspective of the border and also of climate change,” Bagnato said. He continued, saying “Although we don’t address them directly in the book, I think it opens up to a lot of different geopolitical scenarios. Of course there are many situations in the world where borders pass on glaciers like in Chile/Argentina, India/Pakistan, and so on, where the geopolitics are far more heated than in Italy or Austria.”

The Alps in the Trentino province of Italy. 
Photo: Nawarona/ Flickr

Ultimately, the effects of climate change will introduce stresses that borders cannot keep under control. The new, quick changes to the moving border are only one such instance. The US state of Louisiana is rapidly losing ground to the waters on its coast. India and Bangladesh were involved in a dispute over who controlled an uninhabited sandbar that vanished beneath the rising seas. The province of Kashmir has long been a point of contention between Pakistan and India––if its glaciers melt and regional freshwater supply is put under great stress, conflict for control of the province could escalate significantly. 

In an interview with Vice, Ferrari said “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

Discoveries of microbes locked within the depths of glacial ice are opening an exciting new frontier for scientific research, while also posing an ecological predicament. As climate change causes ice masses to melt worldwide, the re-emergence of ancient bacteria and viruses threatens present day species lacking immunity to these old world pathogens.

Early this year, researcher Zhi-Ping Zhong and a team of researchers discovered 33 viral populations within two ice cores that had been extracted from the Guliya ice cap in the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau, in the Kunlun Mountains of northwestern China. The ice dates as far back as 15,000 years ago. All but five of the viral groups are new to science, and about half were predicted to have infected different strains of bacteria, which were also abundant in the ice. 

Researchers trek into the Himalayas to collect ice cores. Credit: Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences/NASA

The Tibetan Plateau is a vast, high altitude arid grassland home to species like the snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and wild yak. It is surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountain chains including the Himalayas, the Qilian and Kunlun mountains, and the Karakoram range of northern Kashmir. Shadowed by the world’s two highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2, at an elevation that averages over 4,500 meters, the Tibetan Plateau is known to many as “the roof of the world.” 

To climate scientists, however, the Tibetan Plateau and its crown of peaks is known as “The Third Pole,” since it is home to tens of thousands of glaciers containing the world’s largest non-polar reservoir of ice. These glaciers feed the most renowned Asian rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Ganges which stretch thousands of kilometers into the arid regions of China and Pakistan and supply water to almost a third of the world’s population.

In their paper, which is currently circulating for comment in advance of peer-review, the researchers explain that the shallow plateau core was drilled in 1992 at a depth of 35 meters while the summit core was drilled in 2015 at a depth of 52 meters. The viral populations are quite dissimilar between the two ice cores and are also different at various depths, “presumably representing the very different climate conditions” at the time when the viral particles settled down into the snow to be compacted into ice.

Video from Kevin Bakker: Ice core drilling in Antarctica (circa 2009) for the purposes of studying bacterial community structure.

Though the first reports of microbes being found in glacial ice occurred in the early twentieth century, they were largely neglected until the 1980s when scientists began investigating organisms in an ice core from Vostok, in Eastern Antarctica. This discovery sparked a surge of glacier ice-core sampling at the end of the twentieth century. However, most studies focused on bacterial communities.

Kevin Bakker, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Michigan, studied bacterial community structure in Antarctic water and ice cores in 2008-09. Once his team extracted a core, it was melted down very slowly, “at the room temperature of the icebreaker we were on, so around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, to make sure the bacteria were kept alive,” Bakker said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Bacteria pop very easily,” he added, “and we needed them alive to see which organisms were eating the radioactive food we fed them… to see which bacteria were active in the community.” 

But for viruses, the definition of whether they are living or not is a moot point, since the DNA/protein complex (while not technically living) simply takes over its host cell — which most of the time is a bacterium. Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team wrote, “information about viruses in these habitats is still scarce, mainly due to the low biomass of viruses in glacier ice and the lack of a single and universally shared gene for viruses,” which can be used for genome sequencing.

In fact, the authors wrote, “there are only two reports of viruses in glacier ice.” They include the Vostok study, as well as a study that found “tomato-mosaic-tobamovirus RNA in a 140,000-year old Greenland ice core.” Viral genomes from glacier ice have not been previously reported, and “their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored.”

Himalayan glaciers. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

Moreover, prior to this study, no specific decontamination method existed. In an interview with Vice, Scott O. Rogers, a professor at Bowling Green State University, said “the biomass is so low that anything you contaminate it with on the outside is going to be at much higher concentrations than anything on the inside of the ice core.” Because it is easy to contaminate ancient microbes with modern ones, the researchers developed a new “ultra-clean” method for isolating pure samples from the ice cores. 

The ice cores had been sealed in plastic tubing, covered with aluminum, and transferred at -20 degrees Celsius from the drilling sites to freezers in Lhasa, Beijing, Chicago, and finally to Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University. In a sub-freezing temperature controlled room, researchers began extracting their samples by first shaving off half a centimeter from the outer contaminated layer of ice. The cores were then washed with ethanol to dissolve another layer, and finally sterile water was used to wash the final half centimeter away.

The pristine inner ice was then methodically melted down and filtered, and steps were taken to identify the virus after extracting the microbial DNA. The virus’s age could be determined by counting the ice layers, just as you would count rings in a tree. To be even more precise, the researchers also dated carbon and oxygen isotopes found in each ice layer.

Layers in an ice core. Credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr

Ancient microbes provide researchers a window into Earth’s evolutionary and climatic past. “We are very far from sampling the entire diversity of viruses on Earth,” Chantal Abergel, an environmental virology researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told Vice. Unfortunately, glaciers around the world are shrinking at an alarming rate. The Tibetan Plateau itself has lost a quarter of its ice since 1970, so the race is on to collect as much knowledge as possible with what’s left. 

Despite its extreme altitude, the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are latitudinally situated to receive a great deal of sunlight, and like the other two, this third pole is warming faster than the global average. In the IPCC special report on the cryosphere, scientists warn that two thirds of its remaining glaciers are bound to disappear by 2100. “This will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years,” wrote Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team.

Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Reurinkjan/Flickr

“At a minimum, this could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes,” the researchers added. However, “in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment.” 

This possibility is very real. Bakker pointed out that in 2016, the anthrax virus escaped from a frozen reindeer carcass, killing a 12-year old boy and hospitalizing about twenty others, when permafrost melted in the Siberian tundra. Frozen microbes released through ice melt are still able to reinfect their targets, but while “there are a ton of viruses, only a few actually infect humans,” Bakker explained. Most ancient viruses pose more of a risk to bacteria. Still, it is important not to underestimate the “dangers encased in ice,” Rogers warned in his interview with Vice. 

Zhi-Ping Zhong’s study represents a major advance in the field of virology. It shows how frozen creatures can inform predictions about the types of microbes that may re-emerge with climate warming, and what this could potentially mean for the future of our biosphere. 

Video from Kevin Bakker: Bakker’s research team encounters some friends on their scientific expedition in Antarctica in 2009. Perks of being a scientist!

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: First Footage From Beneath Thwaites Glacier

Photo Friday: Thwaites Glacier Bore Hole Drilled

Project Aims to Better Understand “Doomsday” Glacier

Video of the Week: How do we Keep the Paris Agreement on Track by COP26?

The 25th Conference of the Parties, or COP25 as it is commonly known, got under way in Madrid on December 2nd and will continue until this Friday. It is an annual climate negotiation summit attended by parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The parties have met every year since the UNFCCC was signed and worked to draft different agreements to combat climate change. 

This year’s conference aims to flesh out some of the details left unsettled from the 2015 Paris Agreement; specifically, they intend to discuss provisions related to carbon markets, communication of adaptation efforts, international climate finance, and capacity building, among other topics. However, slow progress was made in the first week of the conference. 

Carbon Brief, a site dedicated to covering climate change issues, asked scientists, delegates, and NGO representatives in attendance what they believe needs to happen in the next year to keep the keep the Paris Agreement on track. Despite having loose enforcement mechanisms, the Paris Agreement remains a promising international agreement with the potential to help limit the impacts of climate change. 

In our Video of the Week, one of the interviewees, Harjeet Singh of ActionAid, highlights the urgency behind the Paris Agreement, stating that “The reality is that the global south is already facing climate emergencies. They are facing increasing numbers of cyclones, drought and rising seas, and they need to be supported now as we speak.”

Watch the Video of the Week to see even more perspectives on what needs to be accomplished by COP26 to keep the Paris Agreement on track:

Read More on GlacierHub:

COP24 President Highlights Risk of Political Instability During NYC Visit

Glaciers Feature Prominently at COP24 in Poland

Photo Friday: Illustrators Remember COP24

Roundup: Global Glacier Monitoring, Tourism and Public Management in Kenai Fjords, and the Development of an Austrian Glacier

Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World

A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.

An aerial view of mountain glaciers in the Andes (Source: eae/Creative Commons).

Kenai Fjords National Park: Exit Glacier Area Transportation Study

In October, the Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Division Office (WFL) published a report about insufficient parking, congested traffic, and the difficulties of creating bike lanes at some popular glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park National Park in Alaska. The report offers a view into the dilemmas of glacier tourism and public management.

Read the full report here.

Exit Glacier from Herman Leirer Road (Source: NPS).

The Development of Austria’s Pitztal-Ötztal Glacier

The Alpine Association Austria, nature lovers, and the World Wildlife Fund are demanding that the development of the Pitztal-Ötztal glacier be stopped immediately, according to a story on Snow Brains published at the start of ski season in September.

“The Pitztal-Ötztal glacier complex plans to level an area the size of 90 football fields (64 hectares) on wild, rugged glacier landscape to form ski slopes,” Snow Brains reported. “For the construction of new buildings, two football fields (1.6 hectares) are to be removed from glacial ice.”

Read the story here.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Alaska’s Sheridan Glacier––via Operation IceBridge

Video of the Week: AWS Installation on Yala Glacier

Large storage potential in future ice-free glacier basins

Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World

A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.

Glacier monitoring is crucial to research in glaciated areas because glacial melting influences energy production, natural hazard prevention, freshwater supply and irrigation downstream of glaciers. Nadine Salzmann, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told GlacierHub that such monitoring is critical because “we need clear and ‘relatively easy to understand’ climate indicators and monitoring is a fundamental part of any glacier research.”

Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College, told GlacierHub that in the context of this paper, the term glacier monitoring refers “to annual measurement of glacier mass balance, frontal position and completion of glacier inventories that are shared as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) network.” 

The authors of the study used the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) framework, an internationally coordinated framework for the monitoring of glaciers, to assess all glacierized countries’ glacier monitoring systems. GTN-G is jointly run by three organizations dedicated to studying snow, ice and glaciers which are based in Switzerland and the United States. 

The GTN-G framework was selected because it provides quantitative and comprehensive data on glaciers around the world. It includes ground-based studies at individual glaciers and remote sensing studies using technology like satellite imaging to better understand groups of glaciers in mountain systems.

Tier 1Multicomponent system observations across environmental gradients
Tier 2Extensive glacier mass balance and flow studies within major climatic zones for improved process understanding and calibration of numerical models
Tier 3Determination of glacier mass balance using cost-saving methodologies within major mountain systems in order to assess the regional variability
Tier 4Long-term observations of glacier length change data and remotely sensed volume changes for large glacier samples within major mountain ranges to assess the representativeness of mass balance measurements
Tier 5Glacier inventories repeated at time intervals of a few decades using remotely sense data

The GTN-G framework has five tiers of factors which it monitors to assess the status of glaciers (Source: Box 1, Worldwide Assessment of National Glacier Monitoring and Future Perspectives)

The results gleaned from the GTN-G framework are significant because the effects of worldwide glacial melting will ripple across populations reliant on glacial meltwater. Melting will impact the lives of millions whose drinking water supply and irrigation-dependent agriculture will be disrupted as the glaciers melt. According to the study, 140 million people live in river basins where at least 25 percent of the annual runoff comes from glacier melt.

Christian Huggel, a professor of Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub that “glacier monitoring in many ways stands out as a starting point for different impacts downstream of melting, e.g. river runoff/water resources and different populations and economic sectors that depend on it.”

Glacier monitoring programs increase the data available on the status of glaciers and the roles they play in their ecosystems. When a community in a glacial ecosystem has greater awareness of its dependence on glacial meltwater, it can be prompted to adapt to the changes occurring and to prepare for some of the hazards that come with glacial decline like short-term flooding and long-term drought. 

“Local communities, national governments and global/international organizations need to understand how their glaciers, which are important sources of water, among others, respond to climate change, how they change and decline,” Huggel told GlacierHub. 

A glacier in Switzerland’s Zmutt Valley (Source: cvtperson / Creative Commons).

The research team created country profiles for 34 nations and four regions independent of national boundaries. They highlighted three of the country profiles which show that variation in national systems. The first example was Kyrgyzstan. Under the Soviet Union the country had a well-established monitoring system that was abandoned for about two decades before being partially revived. The second was Bolivia; it began a monitoring program, but suffered the loss of one its benchmark glaciers when it melted entirely around 2009, limiting their ability to make long-term comparisons. Switzerland was the third example. The Swiss program is described as one of the most well-coordinated glacier monitoring programs with secure funding, long-term planning, and enough glaciers included in the network that it is not at risk of losing its benchmark. 

The detailed information compiled on each country’s glacier monitoring system is intended to raise awareness of the challenges facing each system and to illuminate what future needs might be to maintain them. The study states that countries in Europe and North America, and Chile, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia seem to have more stable programs while those in Asia and South America will require support. 

Salzmann stated that she “would like to see more direct financial support for countries to take these measurements and that funding should maybe depend on sharing of the data.”

The results also break down information on monitoring systems by continent and provide suggestions for what each continent’s system should improve on. For instance, in South America glaciers cover about 31,000 square kilometers of land and are important to the freshwater supply of many communities. However, the glacier monitoring network is incomplete and the study calls urgently for more complete glacier inventories. 

An aerial view of mountain glaciers in the Andes (Source: eae/Creative Commons).

When asked about the importance of sharing glacier monitoring system related data openly among the countries affected by glacier melt, Pelto told GlacierHub that “it is useful now and this would be enhanced by more comprehensive reporting of glacier measurements to WGMS.” He elaborated, citing studies whose important conclusions were only reached because data was shared among glacierized countries. 

Earlier this week, Nature released a letter signed by more than 35 scientists urging the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to increase their support for international cooperation in glacier monitoring efforts. Pelto was one of the co-signatories. Levan Tielidze, a glaciologist at Tbilisi State University, who has written about the effects of glaciers melting in Georgia, was also party to the letter.

The study is meant to function like a springboard for scientists and decision-makers as they work to improve glacier monitoring systems. The authors hope that their research will provide a valuable source of information in that process. It is also intended to highlight gaps in glacier-related data to avoid ill-informed decision-making that could have negative consequences for the people whose lives are impacted by glaciers. The authors call for all glacierized countries to submit their glacier data to repositories with open-access within the GTN-G community so that different communities can learn from each other. The authors also hope that the study will act like a baseline for global glacier monitoring and be repeated at regular intervals to report on developments on the subject. 

Huggel emphasized the importance of the study with regard to global climate policy: He stated that the “monitoring of glaciers and their decline permits national governments to defend their case in front of the international community (like at the upcoming COP25 conference [an annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].) He underscored the importance of glacier monitoring, saying that “only through documented monitoring of glaciers can [national governments] make a case how showing much they’re impacted by climate change.”

‘Landscapes Need a Voice’: GlacierHub Speaks With Photographer Fiona Bunn

Fiona Bunn is a professional alpine photographer whose work has been displayed in London, Milan, and Zermatt. An avid hiker and climber, Bunn spoke with GlacierHub writer Elza Bouhassira about the inspiration for her most recent exhibition in Guildford, England and her ideas about the role of a photographer in a world increasingly shaped by climate change.

GlacierHub: Can you talk a bit about your exhibition? How does it build on your past work?

Bunn: Going back in time, what motivated me originally was that I’ve always spent a lot of time in the Alps, even as a child I always visited them. Around seven years ago I had quite a shocking experience when I was in the Alps; I took some photographs and could see a profound difference in the glaciers. I’m not sure why I suddenly saw that. Perhaps it was because I had been visiting at different times of the year.

After my shock seven years ago, I felt quite motivated to start developing a conversation. Initially a lot of my work was in black and white. It was quite stark. But as I engaged more with people, I came to realize that photography is as much a journey for me as it is for the people who are looking at it. 

The first exhibitions I did were quite stark, they were in more artistic exhibition spaces. I was in the Milan Expo, and then I did a couple in London. An exhibition I did in the summer was in a very commercial environment. It was in Bond Street in London. The exhibition I’m doing now is in a more spiritual environment. It’s actually in a church. It’s part of a heritage weekend that they’re doing, and the weekend is also part of the liturgical season of creation, which is all about the web of life, about the interconnectedness of nature, and the impacts of climate change. For me it’s a big exhibition, to take over a city center church and to have this opportunity, really, it’s great.

GlacierHub: Can you talk about the upcoming exhibit?

Bunn: It’s a church in Guilford. It’s a 10th-century church. It’s a bit of an artist’s dream because it’s in a state of disrepair at the moment since they’re doing a lot of building work on it. The structure itself is undergoing a lot of change so the pictures of mountains are almost replacing the windows of the church—the windows are covered up due to the construction. People are seeing nature come into their environment where stained glass would usually be, which is really nice. There are 15 images, each about 1.5 meters by half a meter. It’s a beautiful space. And educationally it’s great too because they’ve got lots of children helping, the local Brownies Guides are doing a pop-up cafe. So there’s going to be a lot of young people there and it’s just a great opportunity to engage with a different audience.

Exhibition visitors peer at Fiona Bunn’s alpine images. (Source: Fiona Bunn)

GlacierHub: How do you decide where to shoot? 

Bunn: I like to go back to the same set of places because I’m trying to record change. I try to build relationships with people because I want to focus more on education going forward. Since I’m also a climber, I tend to choose places that are very high up.

And image of the Matterhorn, the most iconic summit in the Alps.
(Source: Fiona Bunn)

GlacierHub: Do you use any filters or post-processing as part of your creative process? 

Bunn: I don’t use any filters and, in post production, just a little bit of cropping. I’ve got quite a basic camera to be quite frank. I tend not to use polarizing filters. I’m a bit of a nightmare for other photographers because if I can climb it, and I can just sit here and I can photograph it, then I’m happy and I’ll do that. 

GlacierHub: Why do you shoot landscapes? 

Bunn: The landscape of the Alps is so beautiful. People ask why I go back to the same places; it’s because every time I go it’s different, the sky’s different, the sunsets, the experiences, the people I meet. I always think of people like John Muir who just basically hung out in Yellowstone National Park most of his life. There is something in that because it’s about getting to know people, and the community and building links that will be part of my artistic process of recording what I’m seeing and experiences I’m having. Personally, I try and capture exactly what I see with a little bit of cropping. What you see is what you get with me.

GlacierHub: Most of your images focus on landscapes and mountains. Is it a deliberate choice to omit animals and humans?

Bunn: I feel that landscapes need a voice at the moment. I do photograph quite a bit of wildlife, but I don’t always put those into my exhibitions. I think there’s probably quite a lot of work that can be done around tracking the effects of what’s happening on wildlife. 

GlacierHub: What do you think the role of a photographer is in a world confronted by climate change?

Bunn: I think photography opens a door to conversation. It’s a tool for communicating experience. I think artists have a profound responsibility. 

I think different artists have different signatures in their work. Some people call them motifs. One thing that I think all artists who have any interest in climate change can say is that the subject profoundly touches you to the extent that you make it the central pivot for your work. What I’ve seen has impacted me to the extent that it has become part of the signature in my work. It’s become very important to me. 

I feel the artistic community has a real role to play in that we have different voices, and together we can reach people. I sometimes worry the message isn’t clear, that there is still a lot of confusion about the message. I think we’re still fumbling our way through this, trying to figure out what are we trying to say. 

Dent d’Herens, over 4,000 meters in elevation, lies in the Pennine Alps between Switzerland and Italy and is host to retreating glaciers.
(Source: Fiona Bunn)

GlacierHub: Do you think beautiful pictures make people complacent rather than provoking them into action?

A: I think we need a combination of both, which is why I think that when different artists work together it’s quite powerful. I’ve always thought that a collective approach is really important. I would say that the more artists who have different approaches, but who are essentially working toward the same goal, the better.

Also, if you show a beautiful picture, you can put powerful words along with it. It’s shocking and it makes me extraordinarily angry to see what we’re doing to the environment. But I know I am not going to reach people with only very stark images. I need to show people the beauty of mountains and that they will not exist the way they do now in the future. Sometimes I wonder whether my work will end up being purely a historical document for people to reflect on in thirty years once the ice is no longer here. If that’s what I end up doing, then I’m prepared to do that. I want to start documenting the people who live there too, because I think that’s important too. John Muir and Ansel Adams, artists I love and respect, they grabbed people’s attention because they cared enough about a place to just sit there and take photo after photo of it. I think things have changed now and I might just be creating a historical document. We can tell people they’re destroying the environment, but they know it. 

Environmentalism needs lots of artists. It needs a lot of us because one thing I have understood is that at first I saw my work as just me loving mountains and wanting to share them with people and warn them that these environments are not going to be like this much longer. I think what I’ve understood is that people love to go and look at art, to listen to poetry, to read stories. And I think this is the time for people who are artists to play on that interest. I think artists have a really important role to play in the process of addressing climate change, whatever their style within it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You can find Fiona Bunn’s photography on her website and on Instagram.

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The Funeral for Iceland’s OK Glacier Attracts International Attention

On August 18, about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, hiked for two hours to attend a somber event. The gathering was in memory of OK Glacier, which had melted so extensively that, in 2014, scientists pronounced it dead. It is the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. 

To be considered a glacier, an ice mass needs to have movement. OK melted so significantly that it no longer had the mass to move under its own weight and so no longer met the criteria of a glacier.

The event received international coverage, appearing in Time, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the BBC, among other major publications. In a New York Times opinion piece, PM Jakobsdottir called the gathering “a local ceremony but a global story.”

“Glaciers are melting all across the world, contributing enormously to rising sea levels,” she wrote. “Himalayan glaciers help regulate the water supply of a quarter of humankind. Natural systems will be disrupted.”

Funeral attendees gathered around a rock on which a commemorative plaque was installed.
(Source: Gisli Palsson)

Two researchers, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, first proposed commemorating the loss of OK Glacier. The Rice University scientists produced a documentary called “Not Okin order to draw attention to the plight of the glacier. In the process of making the film, Howe and Boyer had the idea to hold a kind of memorial for OK, which is shorthand for Okjökull.

Howe and Boyer attended the August 18 commemoration.

Rice University researchers Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer produced a documentary film about OK Glacier. They pose next to a plaque commemorating the glacier’s demise. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

“As we neared the site of the lost glacier, we followed an Icelandic hiking tradition where you walk in silence, think of three wishes, and never look back,” Howe told GlacierHub in an email. “Completing that last 100 meters in silence was exceptionally poignant. We were stepping forward, to be sure, but also reflecting on what it means to say goodbye to the world that we have known.”

Rice University researcher Dominic Boyer holds the plaque commemorating OK Glacier before it is installed. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

Once the participants reached OK, they reflected on the tragedy of OK’s disappearance and on the need to protect existing glaciers.

“At the site of the memorial we had words of recognition, remorse, and— more than anything—calls to action,” Howe said.

Echoing the sentiment, Robinson told the Associated Press: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”

OK’s demise and the commemoration in Iceland has already had ripple effect. On September 22, mourners will gather at a funeral for the Pizol Glacier in eastern Switzerland.

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Photo Friday: The Power of Stories by the Global Oneness Project

Story telling can be a powerful tool in sharing unique human experiences between individuals. A good story is thought-provoking, captivating, and can have the power to influence and inspire people and their ideas.

The Global Oneness Project believes that stories play a very important role in education. This nonprofit provides lesson plans, images, films, and other educational resources for classrooms for free, with a goal to connect people through stories on issues such as climate change, food scarcity, and migration.

“Through featuring individuals and communities impacted by these issues, the stories and lessons provide opportunities to examine universal themes which include the following: identity, diversity, hope, resilience, imagination, adversity, empathy, love, and responsibility, and our common humanity.” they wrote on their About Us page.

Stories and lesson plans by the Global Oneness Project have been featured on numerous publications, including National Geographic, PBS, and TED Ed.

One of the project’s lesson plans is based on a photo essay by Camille Seaman, an award-winning photographer based in California.’Melting Away‘ features images of the rapidly melting icebergs in the polar regions of Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica. In her essay, Seaman shares her personal experience of traveling across these regions, and witnessing the consequences of climate change.

Check out images from Seaman’s photo essay below.

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Iceland to Commemorate the Demise of Okjökull Glacier

Iceland is home to hundreds of glaciers, but in 2014 the number fell by one: the former Okjökull glacier was the first Icelandic glacier to melt due to human-caused climate change. 

Ok in August 2018.
Source: Gísli Pálsson

On August 18, 2019, an event will be held to install a monument to the lost glacier. It was organized primarily by a group of researchers from Rice University in Houston. Participants will include geologists, authors, members of the Icelandic Hiking Society and the general public. In a press release from Rice University, anthropologist Cymene Howe who produced a documentary about Ok said, “by marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire. These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.”

During the event, which the organizers have termed an Un-glacier Tour, a metal plaque will be installed which reads “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The words were written by Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason who will be present at the ceremony. Howe also said that it is the first monument to be installed for a glacier lost to climate change.

The plaque that will be installed on August 18. 
Source: Rice University

The plaque also lists the carbon dioxide concentration “415 ppm,” referring to the concentration recorded in May 2019 at Mauna Loa Observatory. 

Ok is now considered dead ice. Director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, Mauri Pelto told GlacierHub that “stagnant ice that no longer moves is dead ice; a glacier by definition has movement.” In other words, glaciers continuously build up new ice and flow as a result of that process. When an ice mass loses has those qualities it can no longer be called a glacier and is instead dead ice.

“Iceland is not the first country on our planet to lose a glacier due to increasing climatic changes, and it is not the last,” geographer M Jackson told GlacierHub. She continued, saying “we are losing glaciers worldwide at unprecedented rates.” Other countries that have already lost glaciers include Bolivia, the United States, and Venezuela and many other places are on their way to losing their glaciers.

Despite the unfortunate prevalence of glacial retreat, the loss of a glacier in Iceland is particularly poignant because of the country’s relationship to its ice and glaciers. Icelandic anthropologist Gísli Pálsson told GlacierHub he thinks glaciers “have strong significance in Icelandic culture and history.” He elaborated saying, “there is a slogan about Iceland, ‘it is the land of fire and ice,’ the name ‘Iceland’ of course highlights the ice connection, and, historically, there have been scholars on glaciers, some glaciers have been travel routes and have been located between communities without any other connections so there were frequent travels across them for trading.”

Pálsson was a member of the first Un-Glacier tour in the summer of 2018. He described the day, saying “it was a long ride into the highlands and once we got there the mountain was covered with fog and it was a bit spooky. We started to walk uphill and soon the sky cleared. Once we got up there it was stunning scenery of the nearby mountains and we walked around the crater almost in a complete circle and could soon see the remains of the sleet and ice in the bottom of the crater.”  He said the tour was composed of about 20 people and they “talked about the climate, glaciers, and the history of this particular one, and plans for an event a year later which is now coming up.”

Pálsson explained that the person in the green coat is marking the GPS location of the stone so that when they returned a year later they would know precisely which stone was chosen for the installation of the plaque.
Source: Gísli Pálsson

With regard to the Un-Glacier Tour II, Pálsson said “I am unsure if I will be able to go this time, but I wish I could. I’m sure this first symbolic event of paying tribute to a gone glacier will be a well attended and significant event that will later on, with more glaciers under threat, be on record and flagged repeatedly.” M Jackson also had a positive response to the event and said “I’m grateful this memorial has been created, and hope such a stunt will encourage more social and political action to meet climatic changes in the days, months, and years to come.” 

The melting of Ok takes on one meaning for Icelanders and another in the broader context of climate change, but in both circumstances helps to increase awareness of the challenges that climate change will bring about as time goes on.

Rising Temperatures Have Doubled Himalayan Glacier Melt—Study

The Himalayas have a powerful impact on the lives of the people who live near them: They have cultural and religious sway, they play a role in determining regional weather patterns, and they feed major rivers like the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra that millions rely on for freshwater.

A new study published in the journal Science Advances by Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory concludes that glaciers in the Himalaya melted twice as quickly from 2000 to 2016 than they did from 1975 to 2000. “This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why,” said Maurer.

Walter Immerzeel, a professor in the University of Utrecht’s department of geosciences, told GlacierHub that “the novelty lies in the fact that they go back until 1975.” He said that scientists already knew “quite well” what the mass balance rates were for the last twenty years or so, but that looking further back and over a wider area provided interesting new information.

Spiti Valley, which means “The Middle Land,” is located in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. 
Source: beagle17/Creative Commons

Maurer and his co-authors examined ice loss along a 2,000-kilometer-long transect of the Himalayas, from western India eastwards to Bhutan. The study area includes 650 of the largest glaciers in the Himalaya and confirms the results of previous studies conducted by researchers who looked at the rate of mass loss in the Himalaya. 

The new study makes a major contribution by indicating that regional warming is responsible for the increase in melting. The researchers were able to determine this because mass loss rates were similar across subregions despite variations in other factors like air pollution and precipitation that can also accelerate melting.

Immerzeel agreed with the findings. “It is mostly temperature change driving the mass balances,” he said. “It can be locally enforced by black carbon or modulated by precipitation changes, but the main driving force is a rise in temperature.” 

The analysis was conducted using images from declassified KH-9 Hexagon spy satellites which were used by US intelligence agencies during the Cold War. The satellites orbited Earth between 1973 and 1980, taking 29,000 images that were kept as government secrets until relatively recently when they were declassified, creating a cornucopia of data for researchers to comb through.

Maurer and his co-authors used the images to build models showing the size of the glaciers when the images were created. The historical models were then compared to more recent satellite images to determine the changes that occurred over time. Only glaciers for which data were available during both time periods were included in the study.


A diagram of a KH-9 Hexagon satellite that was used to create the images used in Maurer’s study. 
(Source: National Reconnaissance Office)

The new study received widespread media attention. National Geographic, CNN, the New Yorker, and The Guardian, among other major publications, highlighted the study’s conclusion that mass loss in Himalayan glaciers has doubled in the last forty years.

Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of St Andrews, told GlacierHub the findings should be approached with caution. “The statement about the doubling of the mass loss after 2000 compared to the period 1975-2000 should be formulated with much more care.”

“[Scientists],” he continued, “need to be very careful presenting results about Himalayan glaciers and should communicate them correctly specifically after the IPCC AR4 error, and the wrong statement about the rapid disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.”

Bloch is referring to an error that occurred in 2007, when the IPCC included in its Fourth Assessment Report an inaccurate statement predicting that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.

“It is a promising data set, but due to its nature there are large data gaps which need to be filled which makes the data uncertain,” Bolch said.

He added that there is “clear evidence” that mass loss has accelerated in the Himalaya.

A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional intergovernmental organization in Nepal working on sustainable development in mountains, predicts that the Himalayas could lose 64 percent of their ice by the year 2100.

Maurer’s study examines only past melting from 1975 to 2016.  ICIMOD’s study provides additional dimension to Maurer’s results. 

A stretch of the Indus River. 
(Source: arsalank2/ Creative Commons )

The large amount of melting that may occur in the coming decades would result in greater quantities of meltwater entering rivers. The Indus River, which millions rely on for drinking water and agriculture, receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacial melt. An increase in meltwater could augment the risk of flooding of the Indus and other rivers in the region. 

Similarly, there may be a greater number of glacial outburst floods. Outburst floods occur when the moraine, or rock wall, which acts as a dam collapses. A collapse can take place for various reasons including if a great deal of water accumulates in a lake from a phenomenon like an increase in glacial melting. Depending on the size of the lake and downstream populations, among other factors, these floods have the potential to cause substantial damage. The largest of these floods have killed thousands of people, swept away homes, and even registered on seismometers in Nepal. 

Reflections in a glacial lake in Norway. 
(Source: Peter Nijenhuis/ Flickr)

Once glaciers have lost substantial amounts of mass and no longer have large quantities of water to release, the reverse will begin to cause problems: Rivers dependent on Himalayan glacial melt will diminish and drought may become more common downstream. This will negatively affect farming and development in the Himalayan region.

In both the short and long term, according Maurer and his colleagues, glacier melt in the Himalayas will have significant impacts on the livelihoods of those dependent on its towering peaks.

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Planning Meetings to Focus on Water Management in the Andean Region

The objective of a series of workshops on the Andean region is to generate learning, synergies, and develop inputs for the promotion of multipurpose projects (PMP) at the local-regional level that integrate management of water resources and risk management in a context of climate change. The workshops, titled “Exchange of experiences to promote multipurpose water projects as a measure of adaptation to climate change and risk management in mountain areas,” are organized by the Glaciers Project +.

Officials from Chile, Colombia, and Peru who work on issues related to climate change, energy, and water will meet to identify conditions for scaling up PMPs in the Andean Region and other territories. The workshops are expected to generate a roadmap for regional exchange on the PMPs.

Among the topics to be discussed during the two days of the workshops will be the problem of water in the Andean region, which will focus on the consensual construction of the multipurpose approach to adaptation to climate change, management of water resources and disaster risk in the framework of the NDCs. Discussions will also occur focusing on implementing PMP initiatives.

The workshops will be held in the cities of Bogotá and Santiago, the first of which will be held on April 9 and 10 in the Council Room of the Faculty of Rural and Environmental Studies of the Pontifical Javieriana University in Colombia. The workshop in Santiago will be held on May 2 and 3 at the facilities of the National Irrigation Commission.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on El Proyecto Glaciares.

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